Few in the giant displacement camps north of Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, are enjoying the feasting and festivities they usually reserve for Christmas. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled an advance by M23 rebels, who have captured swathes of territory in recent months, with many displaced people settling in flimsy makeshift shelters on lava fields near Goma. Conditions in such informal settlements, which line the road leading to the city of over one million people, are dire. Luckier residents sleep on the floors of schools and churches. But many others have cobbled together huts from sticks and tarpaulin. Hunger is rampant, and poor hygiene has caused an explosion of cholera cases. “I can’t celebrate because I don’t have anything to eat,” said Olive Pandezi, 35, holding rosary beads as she walked to her makeshift hut in Kanyaruchinya, a hillside area near Goma packed with the displaced. The sentiment is common. Justine Muhindo, a 25-year-old mother of three, said: “We’re celebrating in anguish because of war and hunger”. Her neighbour, Sifa, said that in her native village a group of women would pool money together to slaughter a cow on Christmas day. “This will no longer happen,” explained the mother of four, on Christmas eve. “How can we celebrate without food or clothes?” At least 510,000 people have been displaced in the Rutshuru area of North Kivu province since the outbreak of conflict between the M23 and the Congolese army in March, the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA said this week. Some 233,000 of those have taken refuge in areas of Nyiragongo north of Goma. NGO Save the Children also said on Thursday that it had recorded more than 973 cholera cases in two weeks in Nyiragongo. A Tutsi-led group, the M23 re-emerged from dormancy late last year and has since advanced across North Kivu, coming within a few dozen kilometres of Goma. Despite the hardship faced by people who fled in their wake, now camping just kilometres from the frontlines, many are stoic. An elderly woman in Kanyaruchinya who gave her name as Nyiranzabimana told AFP she didn’t know where her next meal would come from but that she was thankful to have escaped with her life. “It is our celebration to see that we are alive,” she said. On Christmas eve, local aid organisations also organised a food drive in Kanyaruchinya and volunteers in Santa hats handed out meals and toys to young children. Camille Ntoto, the head of one such group, said that Christmas is a time for celebration for everyone. “One of the things we can do is show love, generosity and compassion vis-a-vis each other,” he said. Josephine Riziki, a displaced person in Kanyaruchinya, said that the Christmas aid effort had a put smile back on people’s faces. “By the grace of God, there are benefactors who thought of us,” she said. Furaha Ndahorutari, another displaced woman, agreed that Christmas was going well “because the children have eaten”. But she stressed that finding a long-term solution was critical. “We’re suffering enormously and we need help,” she said.